To change someone’s behaviour, start with their values – not yours

A teenage pregnancy changes the life chances for both mother and child over the short and long term and not surprisingly there are big efforts made by health professionals worldwide to cut back on their numbers.

The key is seen to be awareness, but the weakness of so much health education is that it starts from the worldview of the professional – which is rational and factual. It doesn’t start from the mindset and values of those who are being targeted.

The Lancet recently reported on just one such example, which in fact had the opposite effect of what was intended.

The idea behind the programme in Western Australia was simple. Give teenage girls in school ‘simulator dolls’ to take care of that cry and wet themselves. That should teach them how hard life is looking after a little one.

It is not a new idea. Around ninety countries worldwide have the same programme. But remarkably, few of those seem to have been tested to check whether in fact it works.

The study in Australia showed that there, in fact it did the opposite. Teenage girls that were targeted came out more likely to get pregnant, than less (36% more, compared to schools without the programme).

The intervention achieved what was intended in terms of understanding, which is to show that life might be hard with a little one, but it also triggered their values of caring, self worth and attachment by asking them to imagine caring for a baby. Their values won out.

There has been a movement in recent years of health education to learn lessons like this, through using the toolkit of social marketing. I was privileged to work with Dr Jeff French to set up the first UK social marketing effort with the NHS in England over ten years ago. The European Social Marketing Conference runs over the next few days, with a World Social Marketing Conference due in the USA in 2017.

It is not that a direct prompt on values is always right, when it comes to behaviour change, but if you don’t start from the values of those you are focusing on, then it is your values that fill the gap. And then, it is only you that is persuaded.


Values: how to bring values to life in your business is published in October 2016 by Greenleaf.

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